Say what you will about it, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) definitely renewed interest in high school graduation rates. That new interest comes none too soon, because far too many kids in Kentucky and around the rest of the country are not graduating from high school. In today’s economy this spells trouble not only for the dropouts, but also for all of us who have to support their increased social needs and extraordinarily high rates of incarceration.
Recently, there has been a trend in some quarters to overstate the improvement in graduation rates in Kentucky. Some folks are coming up with all sorts of graduation rate calculations that show dramatic improvement.
Those numerical exercises have a host of problems. Some rely on US Census data, which is seriously corrupted for this use because the Census counts GED recipients as diploma holding high school graduates (something NCLB specifically does not allow with its graduation rates). Census also relies on people providing sensitive information about family education levels to a total stranger on a telephone.
Most of the other inflated presentations use numbers from the Kentucky Department of Education, but these conveniently ignore data prior to the year 2000 – perhaps unintentionally, perhaps with good reason. The graph below shows why.
A reasonable calculation of graduation rates over time that corrects for the impact of students who are held back in the ninth grade produces results shown by the blue line in the figure below.
The blue line shows that Kentucky’s public high school graduation rates are only a few points higher today than they were in the early days of KERA. About all we have accomplished at this point is to recover from a very dramatic drop in graduation rates that began as KERA’s impacts started to be felt at the classroom level.
The blue line in the graph above isn’t truly NCLB compliant, but it does use a formula fairly close to the one the Kentucky Department of Education plans to use for official NCLB reporting in the near future. The primary difference is that the calculations for the blue line include too many students as graduates under NCLB rules. Thus, the graduation rates shown by the blue line are higher than what we can expect when the new KDE formula comes into use. To make this clear, the red line in the figure shows results from exact calculations using KDE’s new formula for the years where the required data is available.
So, don’t be fooled by graduation rate presentations that conveniently ignore the full story. We are making some progress in this key area, thank goodness, but so far we really have not improved very much from where we were before KERA started to impact our schools.
For more on the derivation of the graph, see the freedomkentucky.org Wiki item on Averaged Freshman Graduation Rates, A Longer Period Calculation.